Review: Secret Identity uncovers the fetish art of Superman's creator

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Anyone out there know how I can unread a book? I've led a charmed life, so up until now there hasn't been much I wished I could scrub from my brain. Only a handful of traumatic days here and there, a few infamous online images I should have known better than to click through to see, and now Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster (Abrams ComicArts, $27.50), which I warned you back in January would be heading your way this month.

Once Craig Yoe's book showed up, I couldn't stop myself from plunging into it immediately, the same way I can't avoid slowing down along the highway to witness the aftermath of a fiery wreck. The collected results of Yoe's detective work into one of comics' greatest mysteries is beautiful and ugly, exhilarating and depressing, all at the same time. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

And yet, after having read it and paged carefully through its pictures—more than once—I almost feel like taking a shower. Because the sordid story of artist Joe Shuster's final years is so painful that I'd like to make it go away.

Here's why I wish I could unread this book:

I'd already pitied Joe Shuster enough.

Bill Blackbeard, founder and director of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, is quoted as saying that these softcore pornographic images of torture and rape were "something done in loathing and despair to bring in desperately needed work." And here I thought I'd known everything there was to know about the depths to which the man had fallen who'd co-created Superman as a teen with writer Jerry Siegel.

I already knew that the duo's lawsuit over rights, combined with the artist's failing eyesight, had doomed Shuster's career, resulting in his being unable to work in comics at all. I knew he'd ended up as a delivery boy, forced to endure the ultimate humiliation of bringing a package to the offices of DC Comics, where publisher Harry Donenfeld saw him and slipped him a few bucks never to show up there again.

I knew that he'd been arrested for vagrancy, and I'd read the blistering press release sent out in 1973 at the time of Superman: The Movie in which Siegel wrote that "I can't flex super-human muscles and rip apart the massive buildings in which these greedy people count the immense profits from the misery they have inflicted on Joe and me and our families."

What I didn't know was that to survive during the '50s, Shuster had been trapped doing illustrations for stories like "Girl for Sale" and "The Strange Loves of Alice" in amateurishly printed magazines sold surreptitiously under such titles as Nights of Horror.

But then, neither did anyone else, until Yoe came across an issue in a dusty box at a used-book store and immediately recognized Shuster's distinctive style. The signature of JOSH on many of the illustrations—JO from Joe and SH from Shuster—killed whatever doubts any of us might have had.

I'd already known the pain Siegel and Shuster had faced, but this discovery made it so much more real. Realer than I think I wanted it to be.

I didn't need to see Lois whipping Clark. Really, I didn't.

Fans of comics, science fiction, movies and TV have been creating slash fiction for years, inserting their favorite characters into sexual situations. For the writers who do this by choice, the act of mashing up famous franchises brings fulfillment. But I can't imagine that there was any joy as Superman's artist put the creations he felt had been stolen from him into those plots.

There's Superman, sans costume, whipping Lois Lane, and vice versa. There's Jimmy Olsen slipping a reefer to Lucy Lane while telling her to "Puff it in ... in a few minutes you'll feel wonderful." While there's no claim that these drawings were really of those characters, they could pass for identical twins. We'll never know Shuster's thoughts as he sometimes put those famous faces on his tortured characters (many of which we'd couldn't show you, as they're quite NSFW).

But whether he used those likenesses in a conscious revenge on his corporate overlords, or whether he was subconsciously putting his characters into situations which would never have been allowed in the then-child-friendly medium, Shuster didn't do this out of choice, but rather to fend off starvation. And though the sexual situations depicted in these magazines more than half a century old are decidedly vanilla by today's standards of pornography, I still don't feel a great need to see Superman worshipping Lois' shoes, especially not when he was forced to kneel by a fear of poverty.

Because of these feelings, as I wrote at the start, I wish I knew how to unread this book. Any suggestions on how to do it?

But please ... don't send your ideas along too quickly. Because I'll need a couple of hours first so I can go reread Secret Identity a few more times.